Weak Premier League about to produce thrilling five-way race for Champions League places

Scott Heavey

Sometimes, a lack of true quality in a league can be a good thing. The top of the Premier League is as weak as it's ever been, but that's going to create a stellar top-four race.

The Barclays Premier League, the Best League In The World™, is not a very good league. It has no truly elite team, and look like a very solid bet to have no participants in the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Somehow, this might not be a bad thing for entertainment purposes.

Five teams are fighting for two spots in the top four, and none of them are good. Chelsea have a horrible manager, Tottenham Hotspur don't have a real center forward, Arsenal are slightly above average at everything without being great at anything, Liverpool have very little depth and Everton have even less depth. Four of these teams are out of Champions League, or were never there in the first place. The remaining side, Arsenal, are heavy underdogs against Bayern Munich.

Each one of these teams is very deeply flawed, and in most seasons of the Premier League, would seriously struggle to secure a fourth-place finish. This season, one of them has to finish third and two of them have to end the season in Champions League places.

Thanks to the weird state of the bottom-half, where all 10 teams in the lower part of the table could conceivably get relegated, the average points-per-match that these teams end on might indicate that they're partaking in one of the toughest top-four battles ever, but it simply isn't the case. The league's lack of true duds or powerhouses has the Champions League race looking like battle between five extremely deserving sides, rather than a race to see who can fall flat on their faces the slowest. Arsenal and Tottenham have both gone backwards, while Liverpool and Everton have progressed slightly and Chelsea have stagnated. The Arsenal and Tottenham teams from last season could beat the new versions of their themselves, along with the three teams Spurs and Arsenal are in competition with this season.

Of the five sides, Chelsea clearly has the strongest squad. Juan Mata is probably the best attacking player in the league, Petr Cech the best goalkeeper, and their stable of central defenders stronger and deeper than anyone else's. Demba Ba was a brilliant signing, and the magnitude to which he is an upgrade over Fernando Torres is outrageous. Frank Lampard, who scored a ridiculous goal against Newcastle, still has a lot left in the tank. Sure, they could use a great passer in the center, but there's nothing particularly wrong with the Blues' squad.

There is, however, a problem with their manager, a man who has squandered his reputation spectacularly. Once regarded as a world class tactician, Benitez ran Liverpool into the ground in the 2009-10 season, inflicting a wound from which they have yet to fully recover. He did the same to Inter Milan in 2010, and he's working on doing the same to Chelsea in the 2012-13 season. His team selections are asinine, his substitutions are more asinine, and a May feature in the Daily Mail about how the players never respected or wanted to play for Rafa in the first place is basically inevitable at this point.

On Saturday, his midfield got steamrolled by Newcastle and John Terry -- though he's an upgrade over Branislav Ivanovic at central defense -- looked a bit like the aging player he is. They were horrible all match and only close to a draw at any point because of two individually brilliant strikes by Lampard and Mata. Otherwise, a team of exceptionally talented footballers looked clueless and was overrun by a group of mid-table Ligue 1 players who appeared to have some idea of what their manager wanted them to do, while also giving a shit about what he thought of them.

Tottenham and Arsenal both won over the weekend, though in less than impressive circumstances. Spurs were bailed out by a second-half red card, handed to West Bromwich Albion's Goran Popov for spitting at an opponent. Without a creative passer from deep or a real center forward, they needed Gareth Bale to bail them out with a wonder strike. Arsenal failed to break down Stoke City at home, which is par for the course, and squeaked out a similar 1-0 win thanks to a deflected free kick.

Once again, Everton were entirely dependent on Marouane Fellaini to secure a result during this round of fixtures. They conceded three times against Aston Villa, the team in the worst form in the Premier League, with the most goals against and the worst goal differential. They needed their superstar all-around behemoth to steal a draw for them from two goals down, because they didn't have any other way to beat Aston Villa.

On the back of their two draws against top six teams over the last two weeks, Liverpool are a new addition to this list of teams in Champions League contention. A fully-fit Martin Skrtel and a broken-in Coutinho will surely make them legitimate top four, if not top three contenders, given their performances over the last two weeks while Stewart Downing and Jamie Carragher were in their lineup. Downing and Carragher are not only relics from a previous era of Liverpool FC, but relics from a previous era of football, period. The once brilliant Carragher gets by merely on his high-level Old Man Game, while Downing is anything but the dynamic wide player suited for Brendan Rodgers' fluid system that Coutinho is.

A healthy Liverpool, with the added bonus of Coutinho's talents, should make 'Eighthpool' jokes as dated as Carragher's glory days, but beneath Liverpool's very entertaining and likable first-choice starting XI is the cast of characters that guided them to eighth place, followed by a horrible bottom-half start to this year's campaign. Luis Suarez and Lucas are genuinely world class while Daniel Agger isn't terribly far off it, but the loss of any of those three players would be devastating. Without all of them in the team, Liverpool don't stand much of a chance to hang in the race for Champions League spots. With them in the team, they're capable of beating anyone.

There's a lot to like about everyone here, but just as much to despise. None of these teams would qualify as "good teams" in the Premier League's late-2000s glory days, but two of them will have to represent England in next year's Champions League.

While these five deeply flawed teams scare the living daylights out of their fans and worry neutrals that the Premier League is quickly losing its status as Best League In The World™, they're going to provide some truly fantastic entertainment between now and May as they play out the most unpredictable race for Champions League spots in the Premier League era.

If you're neutral, sit back and enjoy the ride. If you're a fan of any of these five clubs, continue cringing every time your team drops points in an inexplicable fashion, then celebrate when your rivals do exactly the same mere hours later.

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